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Editors’ Bookshelf

June 2024
1min read

• In 1910 a white Army surgeon wrote a black friend about Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight champion: “It seems to [whites] a matter of great importance whether his eminence is to be that of the purely sporting, loud, dislike-exciting nigger, or that of a sober, sane, wise and admirable Negro.” Such advice, even from a professed friend of blacks, virtually demands a defiant response and raises the age-old question of whether accommodation or resistance is the more honorable or effective strategy. To his credit, Geoffrey C. Ward, in Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (Alfred A. Knopf, 512 pages, $25.95), refuses to make Johnson a symbol of either of these approaches, seeing him primarily as just an intelligent and enormously gifted man determined to live life as he pleased. (Ward also wrote the Ken Burns film of the same name that will air on PBS in January.) Using a wealth of previously untapped sources, the author, a former editor of American Heritage , shows how the boxer’s indulgence of his desires sometimes became self-destructive; how a racist nation responded with the trumped-up charges that became his downfall; and how, in the end, he managed to rise above the persecution and continue his free-living ways.

• Robert Frost liked to write sitting in an upright wooden chair with a board on his lap; Edith Wharton wrote in bed; Nathaniel Hawthorne turned his desk to the wall to keep from being distracted by the view out his window. These are things you learn from American Writers at Home (Library of America and Vendome Press, 232 pages, $50.00), a lavish book full of photographs of the homes of 21 renowned American authors, from Louisa May Alcott to Walt Whitman, with illuminating accompanying text by the poet J. D. McClatchy. As McClatchy puts it, the book introduces us to places where “our history turned into myth, our lives turned into fables, our passions and sorrows turned into the books that have told us, over the years, how we are Americans.”

• Chester Carlson was a poor, awkward, lonely 12-year-old when he told his cousin Roy he was going to invent something big some day. What he invented, xerography (the word for it had to be invented too), was such an utterly new idea that for a long time nobody thought it could work. He made his first rough copy in a little room above a bar in Queens, New York, in 1938, and decades went by- and whole companies were bet- before the idea grew into the office machines that made Xerox the miracle story of the 1960s. David Owen, whose books include The Walls Around Us and The First National Bank of Dad , tells the tale irresistibly in his new book, Copies in Seconds (Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $24.00).

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